If you wanted to write a story about the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy taking a journey to a new home on an ocean liner in the 1950s, one option would be to start at the beginning of the voyage and go straight through to the end, the docking, as it were. The story could be told in first person simple past tense, along the lines of “I embarked on the ship.”
There would be a strong theme of coming of age and of migration, the experience of journeying to a new place to live. And there could be a story about a boy re-uniting with his absent mother. There could even be a story of erotic mingling with an older woman—as we studied last time.
Because of the past tense, the implication would be that the story was being told from a vantage point in the future. Surely, there would be plenty of opportunity for a narrator entity to comment and explain.
Don’t call me Shirley.
“Kay. We have seen that this is not what Mr. Ondaatje does in The Cat’s Table. Oh no. He makes use of the above structure but augments it considerably. First, he creates a character narrator who looks back from a vantage point of fifty years to tell the story of the boy. In other words, he doesn’t just imply this, he shows it, and thereby a powerful story unfolds of an older person looking back affectionately at a younger self with all its vulnerabilities and mistakes.
As we’ve noted, the story has the feel of being a memoir, however, Mr. Ondaatje strenuously denies that, insisting that it is a work of fiction.
Mr. O. goes further in adding to the basics. The implied author dips into the consciousness of many of the other characters, Mr. Mazeppa, Miss Lasqueti, Ramadhin, Niemeyer, Assunta and her aunt. The other friend on the ship, Cassius, largely escapes this treatment because of his elusiveness. Plus, there is plenty of story about the older narrator, much about his emotional reaction to memory.
We could say that Mr. Ondaatje wanted to create a story about the emotional distance between an old and young age, in contrast to a story about a voyage. Although, son of a gun, a voyage is a good way to describe one’s life course from childhood to old age.
Ondaatje is one smart fellow.
Here’s a passage from near the novel’s end:
“I once had a friend whose heart “moved” after a traumatic incident that he refused to recognize. It was only a few years later while he was being checked out by his doctor for some minor ailment, that this physical shift was discovered. And I wondered then, when he told me this, how many of us have a moved heart that shies away to a different angle, a millimeter or even less from the place where it first existed, some repositioning unknown to us. Emily, Myself. Perhaps even Cassius. How have our emotions glanced off rather than directly faced others ever since, resulting in simple unawareness or in some cases cold-blooded self-sufficiency that is damaging to us? Is this what has left us, still uncertain, at a Cat’s Table, looking back, looking back, searching out those we journeyed with, or were formed by, even now, at our age?”
Heavy stuff, best B. There’s a sense of people waiting, sitting at a Cat’s Table and passively observing life, albeit with intense curiosity. Observing with a great hunger to learn how to be human. And Mr. O. uses the metaphor of a moved heart to show the kind of emotional avoidance humans are prone to. If a situation is too “heavy” emotionally, we turn away, we move our hearts to avoid the intensity. And he is saying the thing that holds us back, sitting and waiting for something that may not come, is this tendency to avoid emotion, to avoid each other. To shy away from the presence of others.
It makes me think of another smart fellow, philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and his theory of how the “Other” places a demand on us just by her/his presence. A demand to engage—or not, Ondaatje would say. A failure.
It takes the older narrator a lifetime to learn that this avoidance is harmful.
The stories that make up the book are about this avoidance and how it goes wrong.
The young Michael and his friends observe the others on the Oronsay, Niemeyer the prisoner, Mr. Mazeppa, Henry da Silva, the Baron, and Miss Lasqueti. The card players and Emily. Miss Lasqueti in particular is studied from afar and theorized over. It is only much later that through the letter he discovers, the young Michael is confronted with her humanity. And Emily, of course. Michael seeks her out for comfort, but as time goes on, their lives are all about missed connection and emotional avoidance.
At the end, Michael is re-united with his mother, but the significance of this is left open. The story ends at this point, and we the readers don’t know what happened to the relationship of mother and son. We know a lot about the older Michael and his thoughts about the past but not about what happened to he and his mother. Did they connect? Did they avoid each other? By the time the older Michael is writing about the events on the Oronsay and about the re-union, his mother is presumably long gone.
Like so many wonderful stories, the ending is left open.
It’s of note that the novel begins with the young Michael being driven to the Oronsay to begin the voyage and ends with his disembarking in England. The story does not end with the older narrator in the present reality but ends many years ago. Although you could say (and probably should) that the whole novel is occurring in the older narrator’s present as he looks back on memory.
Thank you, Mr. Ondaatje for another great and moving experience.
Next week, a new one.